BOISE – North Idaho Sen. Shawn Keough is in line to become the first-ever female Senate co-chair of the Idaho Legislature’s powerful joint budget committee, and if she gets the post, it would mark another historic first: Both co-chairs of the powerful joint committee that writes the state budget next year would be women.
House Appropriations Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, has served as the House co-chair since 2001.
On Friday, Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, was appointed to be the next director of the state Department of Insurance by Gov. Butch Otter; he’ll step down from the Senate when he takes on his new job in mid-June. Already, he’s strongly and enthusiastically recommended Keough as his successor; she’s served as his vice-chair since 2005.
“I could not have asked for a better vice chairman,” Cameron said Monday. “We’ve been through a lot of tough times. She and I think a lot alike – we both support education, we both feel very strongly on trying to make sure that our teachers are paid for and that there are appropriate programs that have to be funded.”
He added, “She hasn’t sough the limelight or been out in front much, but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t doing the work – she certainly was.”
Cameron welcomed the prospect of two women heading the Legislature’s most powerful committee. “I think it’s great – I think we stand back and watch,” he said. “I think they will both do a great job. They’re outstanding individuals.”
Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, on Friday asked Keough to step in as acting chairman as soon as Cameron departs. “That’s the only commitment I’ve made at this point,” he said Monday. “We’ll wait until closer to the legislative session to actually appoint a replacement for Dean.”
Keough has more seniority on the joint budget committee than any other senator; Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot, is seven years her junior in seniority and currently chairs the Senate Resources Committee. Third in line by seniority is Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, the Senate Education Committee chair.
Hill said he hasn’t heard from anyone but Keough expressing interest in the post. He said he’ll have to watch the “domino effect” that occurs when a top-ranking senator leaves to see how everything shakes out. Though seniority is a factor, Hill said, “The pro-tem makes the final decision.”
Keough said, “I would be honored if the pro-tem would allow me that opportunity.” She said, “Certainly with my seniority and my position as vice-chair, I am next in line. … He wanted to be, as he always says, just be thoughtful about what happens next.”
Keough said she believes the panel needs to continue its conservative approach to state budgeting, keeping in mind both economic conditions and the multi-year effort launched this year to address school funding and teacher salaries. “We are coming out of a historic downturn,” she said.
Keough joined the budget-writing panel in 2001 and became its Senate vice-chair in 2005. Since then, she’s turned down other committee chairmanships – including twice turning down chances to chair the Senate Transportation Committee – to remain on the hard-working committee that meets early every day during legislative sessions and spends months hashing out details of the budgets for every state agency.
“I enjoy the process,” said Keough, who’s left noticeable marks on state budgets, including leading the fight for key items in the public schools budget and for funding North Idaho projects. She noted that the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee delves into funding for “all aspects of state government.”
“That is, for me, really the place to be in terms of being of service to the voters of my district and the people of the state of Idaho,” she said. “You can have the best policies on the books, but without a budget, those policies can be meaningless.”
Spots on the joint budget committee, which is evenly divided with 10 senators and 10 House members, are coveted assignments for lawmakers. Once the joint committee sets an agency budget, it rarely changes, as both the House and Senate typically pass JFAC’s bills and the governor signs them into law.
The late Rep. Kitty Gurnsey, R-Boise, served a long stint as the panel’s House co-chair, serving until her retirement in 1996. First elected to the state House in 1974 when the Idaho Legislature had just nine female members, she became JFAC co-chair in 1980 and served 16 years; she passed away on Sunday.
The co-chairs typically serve for many years; Cameron has been the Senate co-chair for 15 years, and previously served four years as vice-chair. When he joined the committee in 1993, Cameron, 54, was among the youngest members of the Idaho Senate. He is currently the longest-serving state senator.
“I think he’s been an outstanding guardian of the taxpayer dollars and a great leader in shaping our budget and moving the state forward,” Keough said. “I’ll miss him tremendously, and I think he’ll be a great asset for us at the Department of Insurance.”
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